Past Drug Use, Future Cops


Nobody expects police departments to hire saints. The job is tough, and recruits with street smarts often edge out those with unblemished resumes. Even so, the confessions of Ellis “Max” Johnson II, one of Denver’s newest officers, were startling in their candor.

Under questioning from background investigators, Johnson admitted he had used drugs on approximately 150 occasions--not just marijuana, but also crack, LSD, speed, PCP, mescaline, Darvon, Valium.

“And God knows what else,” groaned Denver Councilman Ed Thomas.

Although personnel files are among the most closely guarded of police secrets, a copy of Johnson’s was leaked to the media after he entered the academy last fall, sparking a fierce debate over the city’s hiring practices. Many here called him an embarrassment to the badge, even a threat to public safety. But Denver’s Civil Service Commission, which sets the criteria for police hiring, insisted that the 40-year-old former karate instructor had been clean since 1987 and deserved a second chance.


The commission then revealed an even bigger secret about police recruitment, one that is true for many metropolitan departments rushing to expand: Among new hires, prior drug use is the rule, not the exception. The pharmacopeia Johnson sampled may have been extreme, but with their frankness coaxed by a polygraph, 84% of Denver’s police applicants--and at least 65% of its recent hires--have acknowledged some past experimentation, according to civil service records.

“Let’s wake up,” said Paul Torres, the commission’s former executive director. “The days of Mayberry are long gone.”

Such forgiveness can come back to haunt a city, as Los Angeles is learning from the Rampart scandal, which has exposed serious breakdowns in the LAPD’s hiring process. Yet even if every recruit who had ever smoked dope turned out to be a model officer, it would still underscore one of the great contradictions of the drug war:

How can a substance be so pernicious that thousands of Americans are arrested every day for using it, yet so acceptable that a user can still grow up to be a cop? In some cases, officers bust people for acts they themselves have committed--acts that, had they been detected, surely would have doomed a law enforcement career. If police are that permissive with their own, how can the law be so punitive with others? Whose consumption gets treated as a malevolent scourge? Whose gets written off as a youthful indiscretion?

“The way this country looks at drugs, you’re a criminal only if you get caught,” said Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former police chief of San Jose and Kansas City, Mo. “It’s such an incredible hypocrisy.”

To gauge the limits of Denver’s forbearance--and, by extension, the degree to which those who enforce America’s drug laws also have broken them--The Times reviewed the employment applications of every officer hired here in 1999. The files, made available under Colorado’s Open Records Act, were heavily censored, with most identifying information redacted. But in the “Drug Use” section, the responses were consistent: Of the city’s 80 recruits last year, 52 admitted partaking.


Stories of Marijuana Use Are Plentiful

Most of it was marijuana, usually small amounts, long ago. A puff in high school. Three to five times with a college roommate. “On a cruise ship off the island of Dominica,” wrote one officer. “Older stepbrother was smoking and asked me to try it,” explained another. “Given to me at a party,” added a third, who was transferring to Denver from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Although a majority stopped at marijuana, 10 of the pot smokers went further. One dropped acid. One ate psilocybin mushrooms. One tripped on ecstasy. A former Army soldier admitted to smoking hashish oil in his barracks; he also took amphetamines--a “black beauty” and a “robin’s egg”--while on field exercises at Ft. Bragg.

Then there were a few, like Johnson, whose use appeared to push the boundaries of experimentation. One officer, who had smoked pot “about 25 times,” admitted to buying quarter-ounce baggies of weed on three occasions. “This is a mistake I deeply regret making,” he wrote. Another, who was once released to his parents after police stopped him with a small amount of marijuana, chronicled about 75 drug experiences over two decades--including speed, cocaine, LSD and Librium.

“If you polled the American public and asked the same kind of questions, what answers do you think you would get--from lawyers or judges or doctors or MBAs or CPAs or military people or even journalists?” asked Kristopher Colley, one of the Denver Civil Service Commission’s five voting members.

With privacy laws varying from state to state, comparable data from other law enforcement agencies could not be obtained. But interviews with more than two dozen police officials and criminal justice experts indicate that Denver’s experience is repeated across the nation.

When he was named San Jose chief in 1976, only 10% of the city’s recruits admitted to prior use, McNamara recalled. A few years later, though, when a polygraph test became part of the background investigation, the number shot up to more than 50%. “If you think you’re going to try to hire police recruits who have never used drugs, you’re just whistling,” said McNamara, who retired from the force in 1991.


Pragmatism, more than negligence or compassion, tends to determine a city’s tolerance. With the economy booming--and police work everywhere under scrutiny--recruitment has become “a nationwide dilemma,” according to the National Assn. of Police Organizations, a coalition of more than 4,000 unions. Many agencies have struggled just to fill vacancies, let alone be selective; as drug laws have grown stiffer, police have allowed their own standards to relax.

The FBI, which maintained a strict ban until 1994, now concedes that “some otherwise qualified applicants may have used drugs at some point in their past,” according to official guidelines. Under the new rules, prospective agents are permitted to have smoked marijuana up to 15 times, though not within the previous three years; hard drugs up to five times, though not within the previous 10 years.

“The general preference is still to hire someone who hasn’t broken the law, but the harsh reality is . . . there just aren’t that many people,” said Jane Quimby, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Denver office who oversaw recruitment in the region from 1997 to 1999. Of the roughly 35 agents hired on her watch, Quimby said, one-third admitted to having smoked pot.

Some cities, including Los Angeles, refuse to disclose their policies, lest applicants understate their drug histories--or, worse, interpret those policies as a license to experiment. “If we advertise that information,” said Houston Police Department spokesman John Leggio, “they’ll go right up to the maximum.”

Other agencies have precise, and often complex, formulas, a testament to how often such questions arise.

Departments Set Complicated Formulas

In Dallas, recruits who have smoked marijuana up to 10 times must wait a year before they are eligible; for each additional set of 10 usages, they must wait another year (11 to 20 times would mean two years, 21 to 30 times would mean three years, and so on) up to a limit of 75 times.


In Tempe, Ariz., age is the crucial factor: Marijuana can be smoked up to 20 times but only five times after the applicant turns 21 and none within the last three years; the rule on hard drugs is five times but not within seven years and none over 21.

Denver’s rules, now being reviewed by a mayoral commission, had been among the most lenient--the only requirement being a one-year wait, no matter the substance. Seattle is nearly identical, except that it insists on a 10-year buffer for hallucinogens. Austin, Texas, is a mix of strict and forgiving: three years for marijuana and five for narcotics, but applicants also can have sold pot--a disqualifier almost everywhere else--just as long as they did it at least 10 years ago and never were arrested.

“This is not a science,” said Torres, the former Denver civil service executive, who resigned last month after reports that he had put family members on the city payroll. “We just want them to be honest.”

Recruitment in many large cities, including Denver and Los Angeles, is complicated by affirmative-action decrees. Some critics complain that these preferences result in even lower standards, an allegation that hovered over Johnson; he is black and had applied unsuccessfully to 20 different Colorado law enforcement agencies--including three attempts to join the Denver Police Department--before finally being accepted last year.

Denver’s employment records, however, dispute that conclusion. Of the 52 recruits with a history of experimentation, 37 were white. So were seven of the 10 who had done harder drugs. Johnson, who began patrol duties in March, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Drug Use Isn’t Only Crime in Cops’ Pasts

The fact is, with the city’s applicant pool dropping from about 10,000 in the early 1990s to less than 2,500 today, drug use is not the only crime Denver police are forced to forgive. Among last year’s recruits, four had been convicted of drunken driving, three of vandalism, two of shoplifting and one of recklessly firing a BB gun. A U.S. Marine had been fined $400 and stripped of his rank for a “physical altercation” while stationed in Italy. A Columbine High School graduate had been arrested for “hitting a girl” and was given a six-month deferred judgment.


“What a joy,” said Thomas, the Denver councilman, who spent 22 years as a police officer here before entering politics. “We’re talking about public safety, not a social science experiment.”

Lax hiring practices have been blamed for many of the nation’s worst police scandals: Miami in the 1980s, Washington in the ‘90s and, most recently, Los Angeles, where several of the tainted Rampart Division officers were found to have criminal pasts. (One had sold marijuana as a teenager, one had drunken-driving and open-container convictions, one had been arrested for grand theft.) Although the LAPD’s background investigators apparently noted the problems, the city’s Personnel Department still put them on the eligibility list--a roster over which the police chief has only limited veto power.

“At the very end of this, we have a number of people who we don’t think should have been hired,” said Cmdr. Betty Kelepecz, who helped conduct the recent Board of Inquiry into LAPD corruption.

While some lament the decline in standards, others contend that police departments always have excused a certain degree of questionable behavior. A generation ago, it just happened to be heavy drinking and domestic violence. “I would look at a lot of cops that joined the force when I did and think, ‘How in the world did they get hired?’ ” said McNamara, who became a New York City patrolman in 1956. “They were nuts, they were alcoholic, they were brutal. . . . But they were regarded as manly.”

Many police management experts, in fact, believe that recruits who have smoked pot can just as easily turn out to be more effective officers--kinder, gentler, savvier--or at least less likely to violate a drug suspect’s civil rights. Experimentation is never encouraged, but an otherwise talented applicant with a history of drug use will often get the nod over a mediocre candidate who has never broken the law.

“What you really want is somebody who represents the norms of the community,” said Tony Narr, director of management education at the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.


Big Segment of Society Routinely Defies Law

“I am not condoning drug use nor am I suggesting that a drug user might make a better cop,” he added. “But if everyone you looked at was so squeaky clean that they had never bent a rule or done anything questionable, that person probably wouldn’t be typical of middle-of-the-road America and probably wouldn’t make the best officer.”

What middle-of-the-road America will tolerate and what the nation’s drug policies dictate, however, can be two different things.

Like drinking alcohol in the era of Prohibition, smoking pot today is such a widespread rite of passage that a vast--and otherwise upstanding--swath of society routinely defies the law. An estimated 70 million Americans have tried it at least once, including nearly 50% of high school seniors. Most do not grow up to be bank robbers or heroin addicts.

By their own admission--and without any apparent side effects--President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have ingested a controlled substance; GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush has been vague in responding to rumors of his own alleged drug use.

Popular culture may treat getting high with a wink and a nudge, the stuff of a Jay Leno monologue. Yet for those who get caught, and they too represent a vast and expanding swath of society, redemption does not come so easily.

Police made 1.5 million drug-related arrests in 1998; more than 680,000 were for marijuana--and of those, 88% were for possession, not sales. In many states, people caught with pot can lose their driver’s license. Students can be stripped of financial aid. Residents of public housing can be evicted and immigrants, legal or not, deported. The greater the quantity, the stiffer the sentence, with some first-time offenders subjected to long mandatory terms, even life without parole. An estimated 37,500 marijuana convicts are currently behind bars.


“It all comes down to luck,” said Chuck Thomas, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington group that favors decriminalization. “Who gets caught and who doesn’t?”

Given the enormous number of users, the odds are that most will never be caught, even less so on their first puff. As for those who do get nabbed with drugs, the conventional wisdom suggests, they must have had it coming to them. “You usually have to be doing something pretty openly and pretty consistently and pretty seriously before you’re going to get arrested,” said former U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who served as chairman of President Reagan’s National Drug Policy Board.

Still, there is little question that some drug users are unluckier than others. Narcotics enforcement is aimed primarily at impoverished, inner-city communities, where addicts tend to be more concentrated and trafficking less discreet. On the nation’s interstates and at its ports-of-entry, authorities have long relied on racial profiles to cull potential smugglers from the crowd. While the children of privilege occasionally get snared, the law generally comes down hardest on those without the resources to fight back. The average American drug user is a white, middle-class, suburban male; the average drug convict is poor, urban and black.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know how many times the authorities have looked the other way because a person possessing drugs was a police officer or a celebrity or related to a government official,” said Timothy Lynch, a criminal justice expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, which lobbies to keep government out of private life. “You can’t get around the fact that the drug war is rife with double standards.”

When asked to reconcile the conflicts between U.S. drug policy and the realities of police recruitment, authorities often sound more like public defenders than prosecutors. They speak of human frailty, of putting mistakes in context, of not defining a person by his worst deed.

“A lot depends on the individual,” said Meese, now the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. For a marginal recruit, he explained, one puff could be one too many; for a stellar candidate, there might not be a limit. “It’s just a fact of life that some undoubtedly fine people made these mistakes while they were young,” Meese said. “You have to look at it and say, ‘What is indicative of this person’s personality and qualifications under all the circumstances?’ As long as they’re being honest . . . I don’t believe it’s necessary to have an absolutely rigid rule.”


To critics of the drug war, that sounds like a reasonable standard; they just wonder why it is so rarely applied to those who get caught. “It’s ironic and sad that police are given more leniency than the people they pick up,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington group opposed to strict one-size-fits-all sentencing rules.

Under federal law, sentences for most drug crimes are determined by a single factor--the quantity of drugs--without regard to the defendant’s actions or motives or likelihood of reoffending. “There are a huge number of low-level defendants serving these ridiculously long sentences for doing something that was wrong but was also nonviolent and often sort of an experiment and no one got hurt,” said Stewart, who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums after her brother received a five-year prison term for growing three dozen marijuana plants. “These are people who don’t get a second chance . . . who aren’t looked at in their entirety.”

For nearly a century, the U.S. government has viewed drugs as an almost subversive force, symbolic of rebellion and moral decay. Marijuana, in particular, has been the emblem of outsiders, from hippies to skate punks, jazzmen to gangsta rappers.

Even Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, who smoked it as a college student, now warns children that pot is “a one-way ticket to dead-end hopes and dreams.”

‘No Resemblance to Reality’ Seen in Laws

That police--the ultimate symbols of order and authority--are willing to tolerate its use “tells us that our Draconian system of drug laws bears no resemblance to reality,” said Elliott Currie, a UC Berkeley professor and author of “Crime and Punishment in America.”

He believes that most organizations and institutions--from hospitals to universities to, yes, newspapers--recognize that relatively minor drug use “is not a particularly dreadful thing.” But lawmakers, he added, operate in the “symbolic political realm . . . not in the pragmatic and practical realm.” Rather than acknowledge that we all can be tempted, they do everything they can to make distinctions, to draw lines between “them” and “us,” criminals and victims, the bad people and the good--or, as the case may be, the Caught and the Uncaught.



Drugs in Their Past

Of the 80 hires by the Denver Police Department in 1999, a majority had a history of drug use:


Used marijuana: 42

No drug history: 28

Used pot and harder drugs: 10


Source: Denver

Civil Service Commision